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10 tips on how to create observational drawings

Observational drawing is the basic component of many high school Art courses. Drawing is the core method of researching, investigating, developing and communicating ideas. Creating art from life, the student is able to interact with the rich information that the subject brings. 

The following are tips for high school art students who are looking to improve the realism of their observational drawings. 

Tip 1: Look at what you are drawing 

This sounds obvious but it is the most common error made by many students. Many students attempt to draw things the way they think they should look, rather than the way they actually look. 

The only way to record shape, proportion and detail is to look at the source of information. In order to produce an outstanding observational drawing, you must observe: your eyes must constantly move from the paper to the object and back again. You should be aiming to observe your subject at least 50% of your working time. 

Tip 2: Draw from real objects 

Observational drawing implies drawing from real life. By drawing from objects that are directly in front of you, you are provided with detailed visual information – changing light conditions, rich textures, and views of the subject form alternate angles. 

However, this doesn’t mean you should never draw from photographs. Some subjects such as landscapes and architectures are unavailable in most classroom settings. It can be good practise to visit the location and begging drawing directly from the subject then suing photographs to complete the details at home. 

Tip 3: Don’t trace 

Tracing from photographs and simply applying colour or tone is not acceptable. This method of drawing involves minimal skill and runs the risk of producing clunky, meaningless pieces. 

Tip 4: Understand perspective

As objects get further away they appear smaller. The replication of this change of scale on paper is called ‘ perspective.’

Tip 5: Use grids, guidelines or rough forms to get the proportions right before you add details 

Many students start with a tiny detail (ex. Eye on a face) and then gradually fill in the rest of the image. This often ends up with a drawing that is badly on the page. This mistake can be avoided by sketching out the basic forms before adding details or by using guidelines to ensure the proportions are correct. 

If working from a photograph, using a grid can help with creating highly accurate work. It allows the student to focus on one small segment of the image at a time and gives arbitrary lines from which distances can be gauged. 

If working from life, roughly sketching outlines of the object form will allow the student to get the right proportions before adding in the details. 

Tip 6: Keep the outlines light 

As a drawing is filled in with more details, the attention to the subtle variations in shape and form, students tend to darken the outlines to ensure the object is visible. DO NOT DO THIS!

Real objects do not have dark lines running around every edge. Edges should be defined by change in tone or colour. If you are producing an ink drawing, a cartoon or graphic images, outlines can be darkened. In an observational drawing – especially the ones that wish to be realistic, dark outlines are never advised. 

Tip 7: Have a Good range of Tone 


When it comes to applying tone to the drawing, look at the object. Observe where the light and dark areas are and copy what you see. The drawing should include a full range of tone, from black to multitude of greys (or coloured mid-tones) to white. 

Tip 8: Use mark-making to convey surface texture 

Use mark-making to help convey the texture(s) of the subject matter. There are multiple ways of creating textures such as hatching, dashes, smudges, dots. 

Tip 9: Include/ omit detail as necessary 

As the artist, it’s your decision whether some things are going to be included or omitted.When drawing trees, plants and bushes, it is not necessary to replicate every leaf or branches. When drawing a human, it is not necessary to depict every strand of hair. The artists always have the option to pick and choose what goes in their artwork as long as the decision is based on what aesthetically looks the best for the work. Omitting certain details will make the composition less cluttered and easy on the eye. 

Tip 10: Insert your own personality 

The previous tips are aimed to help the student on creating more realistic observational drawings. This tip is different, it is to remind that there is a difference between the real item and the drawing. 

Usually observational drawings are expected to be realistic in nature, but this doesn’t mean they have to be hyper-realistic (they don’t’ have to look exactly like the photograph). 

Source: https://www.studentartguide.com/articles/realistic-observational-drawings

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